Almost a quarter of children from low-income families missing out on the benefits of reading in their first year, BookTrust research shows

Published on: 24 May 2023

New BookTrust research finds that families overwhelmingly see reading with their child as important - but need more support to make it happen.

A child lying on the floor of a library looking at a book

New research from BookTrust has found that almost a quarter of parents and carers from low-income backgrounds (23%) are not sharing books with their children before their first birthday - despite the majority (95%) seeing reading as an important thing to do.

20% of families said they don't read to their children because of a lack of time, while 28% said they don't find it easy.

Where families are regularly reading and sharing stories together, this reaches its peak when children are between two and four years old, but the frequency of children being read to daily after the age of four drastically reduces and continues to decline throughout childhood.

But sharing books, stories and rhymes can have huge benefits for children in the early years, enhancing cognitive, physical, social and emotional growth and development during a period of significant brain growth.

Stats from our research briefing exploring reading in the early years: 95% of parents and carers see reading as important for their child; 77% of families start sharing books with their child before their first birthday; 28% of parents and carers don't find reading with their child easy; 21% of parents and carers don't feel confident choosing books that their child will enjoy; 20% of parents and carers say they don't read with their child due to a lack of time

Shared reading also supports bonding between children and their parents, carers or other family members; boosts parental positivity; and improves children’s sleep.

'Reading has the potential to change lives and our aim at BookTrust is to get all children reading regularly and by choice, ' said Diana Gerald, Chief Executive at BookTrust.

'As this research shows, families recognise the importance of reading in their children's early years. Much of this can be attributed to the hard work of the early years practitioners, libraries and health visitors with whom we work closely to inspire families to read and share books and stories together early on. Yet parents and carers tell us that a lack of time or confidence choosing books are the main barriers they face that prevent them from reading more.

'Whilst this research will continue to shape and inform the support and resources that BookTrust provides for children and families across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, at a time when the disadvantage gap is growing between children from low income backgrounds and their more affluent peers, there must be a greater emphasis and focus on establishing children's reading habits early on in life, especially for those children who stand to benefit the most from the lifechanging benefits of reading.'

Supporting families to get reading

The benefits of reading extend far beyond childhood, which is why BookTrust places such an emphasis on working with communities and partners to support families to read, share stories and establish early reading habits through an extensive range of resources, books and support.

Our Bookstart programme (established in 1992) provides a free book pack and top tips to every baby within their first year of life to kickstart families’ reading habits. In 2023 over 600,000 packs will be distributed to families.

Over recent years, and to provide further support to children from low-income backgrounds, we have also developed new initiatives including offering Bookstart Toddler and Preschooler packs for children aged 1-2 and 3-4 respectively, with 425,000 families receiving packs and 4,000 storyteller resources provided to support those working closely with families.

An example of a Bookstart Toddler pack including rhymes, the book Look At Me, the book Where Are The Yellow Chicks Spot, and a finger puppet

BookTrust Storytime also launched in 2021 in partnership with libraries to encourage families to make visiting their local public library a regular part of family life.

Liz, a mum from Shropshire who received Bookstart Baby, said: 'I feel like reading is helping my children develop who they are. My son had the most challenges with reading at first, so it was really important that we found things for him to read that interested him. When he was younger, he was majorly interested in like anything to do with the vehicles, so we found him loads of books about tractors.

'Things have become so much easier for him. He's been able to get loads more out of school because it's not such a chore for him to read the things in front of him.

'Now, when he reads, he's not doing it as a task that has been set by us or his teacher. He's doing it because he enjoys doing it.'

Setting children up for life

A photo of a baby in a library sitting on the floor playing with a book

Evidence shows that sharing stories and reading together provides children with life-changing benefits that can positively impact their wellbeing, health, creativity and educational attainment. 

Establishing a reading habit as early in life as possible means that children from low-income backgrounds can especially benefit from the transformative benefits of reading. For example, children from disadvantaged backgrounds who achieve highly at the end of primary school are twice as likely to have been read to at home in their early years compared to their peers.

Research also shows that reading for pleasure in these crucial years has four times the impact on a child’s progress by age 16 than their parent’s education or socioeconomic status.

Louise, a librarian from North Somerset said: 'I see how the outcomes for children who enjoy reading are different. They’re more engaged at school. They're more engaged in jobs. Their emotional intelligence is stronger.

'The outcomes for kids who read are just startlingly different. Kids who genuinely enjoy reading and want to go out and explore and find the next book.

'Anything we can do to make reading fun, to make it less of a chore or a tick box exercise – something children know they’ll be measured on at school – is so important. Anything that encourages kids to think about books as fun, as escapism. It's just so good for everything.'

Download the full research briefing (English)

Download the full research briefing (Cymraeg)

Download the full press release

'It doesn't have to be sitting there with an encyclopedia': Read real stories

Reading Together

Reading Together, Changing Children's Lives is based on decades of experience of working with millions of families and thousands of local partners, including health visitors, nurseries, schools, libraries and food banks.

Discover our four proposals